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Estonia’s Detainee Mobile Phone Ban Ruled Unconstitutional

Estonia’s Supreme Court building (source: Visit Estonia

In June, Estonia’s Supreme Court ruled against a ban on immigration detainees using their mobile phones. Challenging restrictions on detainees’ ability to access the internet, the court also held that access to the internet is a human right which must be upheld by detention centre management. 

Immigration detainees in Estonia’s dedicated immigration detention centre–the Rae Detention Centre–face stringent restrictions on their ability to communicate with the outside world. In-line with the internal rules of the detention centre, mobile phones are confiscated upon arrival. Detainees instead receive a monthly calling card worth EUR 5 for phone calls. Depending on the country they wish to call, this could amount to as little as 11 minutes a month. 

Detainees are also severely limited in accessing the internet: While they may use the centre’s computers, these devices only connect to a select handful of websites such as the Challencer of Justice’s webpage. This restriction, however, is not mentioned specifically within the internal rules. 

Justifying these restrictions, the country’s Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) has stated that it is concerned that if detainees are permitted to communicate with the outside world, they may receive instructions on how to attack Estonia or plan an escape, or share information with others about how they can irregularly enter the country. 

However, as rights observers have repeatedly emphasised, immigration detainees need to be able to maintain contact with people outside detention centres for a variety of reasons–such as preparing asylum applications, maintaining contact with legal representatives, and staying in touch with family and friends. According to a lawyer at the Estonian Human Rights Centre, the restrictions have meant that detainees’ “fundamental rights to the protection of family life and access to publicly available information are being violated.” 

Highlighting these fundamental rights and emphasising the fact that asylum seekers and migrants in detention are not criminals and therefore shouldn’t be treated as such, in March the Estonian Human Rights Centre and law firm Triniti challenged the provisions within the internal rules. On March 20th, the Administrative Court found that the provisions are contrary to the Estonian Constitution, and referred the case to the country’s Supreme Court. 

In its 20 June ruling, the Supreme Court held that the ban on mobile phones is unconstitutional. Further, it held that: “a blanket ban on the free use of the internet with a personal device may infringe many fundamental rights, since without the internet it is difficult to exercise many fundamental rights today.” 

Across Europe, immigration detainee access to mobile phones and the internet varies widely, which the GDP previously reported in our 2018 study Harm Reduction in Immigration Detention: A Comparative Study of Detention in Centres France, Germany, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland. In May 2023, a delegation from Norway’s Ministry of Justice visited Geneva’s Frambois Detention Centre to assess some of the practices at the facility that are outlined in our 2018 study, including detainees’ broad access to the internet, in contrast to detainees at Norway’s Trandum detention centre, where internet access is sharply restricted. 

Read more in this statement from the Estonian Human Rights Centre. 

Read more about the Norwegian Ministry of Justice visit to the Frambois detention centre.

Communications Conditions in Detention Estonia Legal Reform